News

The Oregonian: Portland colleges make changes to accommodate more veterans
Author: Devin Kelly
Posted: September 4, 2012

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

Jesus Bruno always sat in the last row of his classes at Portland Community College.

If he had his back to the door, he said, it was impossible to concentrate – a product of two decades in the Army as a medic.

“You overthink it, any movement outside,” the 44-year-old said. “In a class with only one door, you’re thinking, ‘Who’s the next person coming in here?’” 

After returning from Kuwait in 2004, the mental and emotional toll of post-traumatic stress disorder and the pressures associated with exams and due dates eventually overwhelmed him. He had to drop out of school. 

In those years, another person watched helplessly as he struggled: his wife, Narce Rodriguez, now the dean of student affairs at Portland Community College’s Rock Creek campus.

Neither of them knew what to do. On top of that, very few resources existed on campus specifically for veterans, Bruno said.

“He just didn’t know how to ask for help,” Rodriguez said. 

But that problem, common among veterans returning to school, may be changing. Far more veterans are going to college because of a weak economy and a new, generous source of government aid.

And colleges, including those in Portland, are gearing up to better accommodate the growing veteran population.

As a PCC administrator, Rodriguez could see the problems: Colleges didn’t immediately have the answers for people used to the rigidity of military life. Veterans returned from a close-knit military unit to friend groups that had changed or fallen by the wayside. Faculty members didn’t know how to address veteran needs, to handle tense situations in a classroom.

The questions were arising at a time when veterans were about to receive a large financial boost toward higher education. In 2008, Congress passed the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, designed as a full-ride scholarship for veterans who wanted to pursue a degree.

Four years later, more than 500,000 veterans and family members are using the benefits. A tough economy has contributed to a rapidly expanding population of men and women who have served overseas.

In July, the American Council on Education released a report that surveyed 690 public and private institutions across the country and found that 62 percent of the institutions provided services for veterans, up from 57 percent in 2009.

Seventy-one percent identified expanding veteran resources as part of their long-term planning, an important development, said Meg Mitcham, director of veteran’s programs for the council.

Colleges in Portland exemplify how schools are working to keep pace with the accelerating changes. Portland State University enrolled more than 1,000 student veterans for this fall, a number that has increased rapidly in recent years, officials said.

On one Saturday last month, a group of men moved office chairs and furniture into a large well-lit office with yellow and maroons walls and blue carpeting. The spacious fourth-floor office will soon be complete with counseling services, a lounge area and an administrative area to serve as the new Veterans Resource Center, which was previously in a cramped one-room office.

“It’s not much now, but come back in a few weeks,” said Dave Christensen, glancing around happily. Christensen is the vice president of program development for Viking Vets, the PSU student veteran association.

The center will be in full operational mode next year. Viking Vets is applying for money through the student fee committee to hire a full-time coordinator, Christensen said.

At Portland Community College, more than 1,400 veterans will be enrolled in the fall. In recent years, student veterans have mobilized to make expanding services a top priority for administrators.

On the Rock Creek campus, the system’s first-ever Veteran Resource Center is a small but cozy room near the center of campus. Snacks and coffee are available. A veteran might walk in and find Chris Mann, a helpful staffer with 12 years of experience in the National Guard.

Mann said the greatest benefit of the center is the sense of community.

“It’s a place to talk to each other and not feel judged,” Mann said. “How you’re feeling, or how something affected you while you were in a classroom.”

The Rock Creek veteran resource center also will be expanding next fall into a space with a much larger lounge and study area and separate office. A survey of veterans last year showed space was one of the biggest needs, Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez is also assembling a district-wide veteran task force to streamline PCC’s efforts and build full-functioning resource centers at the Cascade and Sylvania campuses. PCC has taken cues from Clackamas Community College, which in 2009 earned a $100,000 grant from the American Council on Education for its work in translating military experience and training into college credit for veterans.

As his wife helps with the push for more veteran student services, Bruno is now a stay-at-home dad, focusing on his health and on finding a job. His rocky return to civilian life changed both of their lives, he said.

“It was really close to her heart, getting the VRC going,” Bruno said. And the last time he stopped by the campus and went into the center, he liked what he saw.